Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum   Director: Steven Spielberg   Screenplay: Tony Kushner   Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Rita Moreno, Iris Menas, Mike Iveson, Jamila Velazquez, Annelise Cepero, Yassmin Alers, Jamie Harris and Curtiss Cook   Distributor: 20th Century Studios/Walt Disney Studios

Grade: B+

Devotees of “West Side Story” who might have feared that Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg would attempt the sorts of drastic changes to the classic show that Ivo van Hove did in his poorly-received 2020 Broadway revival can rest easy.  That misguided effort to make such a dated work—based, like “Blackboard Jungle,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “12 Angry Men” and plenty of other fifties movies and television shows, on what some even then called bleeding-heart liberal notions of the root causes of juvenile delinquency and discrimination—more relevant to the present day was bound to fail, despite its enduringly brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. 

What Kushner and Spielberg seem to have realized was that the proper way to do, or redo, the show is as a period piece.  There are alterations and expansions in their version—added backstories for characters, responses to modern sensibilities about ethnic and gender identity, a few new episodes, one major character reimagining—but they improve on the original book by Arthur Laurents and the screenplay Ernest Lehman wrote for the 1961 Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway show and are certainly not so radical as to be damaging; and while some numbers are repositioned the score is treated reverentially.  Justin Peck’s choreography pays homage to Robbins’ as well, though it can’t quite match it.   One might describe the result as conscientious, even traditional, though it’s done up with Spielbergian pizzazz (the 1961 film, despite the helicopter shots and outdoor scenes, was actually pretty stagey) and, in terms of casting, cognizance of the need for proper representation.

Of course, the first film had already made some alterations in the arrangement of numbers, though it was overall extremely faithful to the Broadway original even while opening it up.  A 2009 Broadway revival, overseen by Laurents himself, was even freer with changes, translating some of the dialogue (and two songs) into Spanish for authenticity’s sake.  (The new lyrics were the work of—you guessed it—Lin Manuel Miranda).  So it would be absurd to complain of the revisions Kushner and Spielberg have made, especially since they’re largely for the better.

They can’t, however, cure all the ills that afflicted the show from the very start.  Initial reviews were mixed in 1957, though by the time the first film appeared in 1961, it was unfashionable not to praise it pretty unreservedly.  (An exception was the never-pusillanimous Pauline Kael.)  The transposition of “Romeo and Juliet” to the New York slums was always dramatically facile, the juxtaposition of pungent reality and astringent music with mainstream schmaltz was uncomfortable, and the characters of Maria, and especially Tony, were thin.  Even the best renditions of the musical couldn’t hide the flaws.  This one mitigates some, but only to a degree.

It begins with a visual challenge to the helicopter scenes that opened Wise’s film: a spectacular crane shot that introduces us to the rubble of the neighborhood being cleared for Lincoln Center as part of city-rebuilder Robert Moses’ “slum-removal” program—an example of the outstanding production design (Adam Stockhausen) and cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) that informs the entire film. There follow the introductions to the two gangs that vie for domination of the disappearing area, the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), and their hated rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) via dances that fill the streets, only the first of such sumptuously choreographed ensemble routines sprinkled through the film: “America,” which follows the earlier film’s boy-girl back and forth rather than the original show’s girl-girl one, but is far more elaborate than either, for example, or the extravagant “Officer Krupke” number, restored to its original place toward the end of the film from its place much earlier in Wise’s version, or the dance at the gym, with its love-at-first-sight interlude, or the always-incongruous but delightful “I Feel Pretty,” or “Cool” and “The Rumble,” both creatively reimagined here.   At these points the editing by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar has its greatest impact, though it’s fine throughout, and the costumes show of Paul Tazewell’s design skill.      

Then Bernardo’s sister Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) and Riff’s erstwhile gang partner Tony’s (Ansel Elgort) are introduced, with somewhat expanded backstories—Tony’s now an ex-con, having served a year for assault, which both foretells the physical prowess he’ll exhibit later, and explains why he’s so determined to go straight.  Bernardo’s profile is also enhanced by portraying him as a promising boxer.  In truth, though, these are minor adjustments, and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) is pretty much unchanged—but she was already a vibrant figure, in no need of enhancement.  The occasional added sequences, like a date Tony takes Maria on to the Cloisters, are similarly fine but unnecessary, though at least that one adds to their romance.

By far the most significant change, however, is to the character of Doc, the owner of the store where the Jets congregate, played in the Wise film by Ned Glass.  He’s been transformed into Valentina (Rita Moreno), presented as Doc’s widow and Tony’s employer and confidante, as well as the voice of reason and possible reconciliation.  Moreno’s presence is not just a happy homage to Wise’s film—and her own storied career; it adds ballast to this remake.  And her assumption of one of the songs is not only right, but has precedent; one need only go back to the original Broadway production for it.  Moreno is only one of the adult actors who deliver here; Corey Stoll’s abrasive Lieutenant Schrank and Brian d’Arcy James’s Officer Krupke also fill the bill.

But this “West Side Story” rises or falls, as they all do, on the younger performers, and Spielberg has chosen well.  Zegler, plucked out of high school, exudes innocence and likability while carrying Maria’s deeper emotions at the close, and Elgort gives an essentially bland character some ingratiating charm and spine.  DeBose can’t efface memories of Chita Rivera and Moreno, but she certainly makes Anita a powerhouse again, especially in “America” and his big scene toward the close. Alvarez, who left showbiz after his joint Tony win for “Billy Elliot” years ago, brings heft and toughness to Bernardo, and Faist nervous energy to Riff.  Among the others, Josh Andrés Rivera and Iris Menas make the strongest impressions (the latter brings a contemporary vibe to Anybodys), but the whole ensemble is first-rate.               

It has to be admitted that despite its myriad virtues, this new “West Side Story” doesn’t prove that a remake of the 1961 film was needed.  Still, there’s no reason why the show shouldn’t have been tackled again, especially by people like Spielberg and Kushner, who exhibit obvious commitment to the material; one should be grateful that it’s been done so intelligently and passionately.  There are now two excellent cinematic treatments of this landmark Broadway musical.